Cricket July 5, 2012

The power of sports

Sourabh Bhargava
In India people got interested in cricket because of nation v nation concept. It provided us an observable platform to get even with the English who ruled us for over two centuries; it also provided us a stage to upstage an unfriendly neighbour

As almost every news channel displayed video clippings of Spanish fans' celebrations after triumphant Euro 2012 campaign, my memories flashed back to last year's similar jubilant scenes witnessed in India after their World Cup cricket victory. More than the joy one derives from witnessing the drama, the supreme skill-set and the mental fortitude of the greatest athletes in these tournaments, I am intrigued by the super natural power of these revered sportsmen to elevate fans to an unreal world where their real life problems are put to backburner, at least temporarily.

Sports fans rarely display rationality. Otherwise, how does one explain a bunch of die-hard English fans called Barmy army travelling across the globe and cheering their utterly mediocre cricket team in the 1990s? Or for that matter how does one justify every English fan's singular obsession with the idea of Tim Henman being crowned the next Wimbledon champion in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The only Englishman it seemed who thought otherwise was Henman himself.

Indian cricketer Gautam Gambhir pointed out that most poignant moment for him post the World Cup victory was the sight of an impoverished man in Mumbai sleeping on the pavement with Indian tricolor flag draped on his semi-naked body! What explains this sort of allegiance bordering on insanity?

In my view there are certain factors which make the sports fan the world over behave in a manner that would be dismissed as utterly impractical in other spheres of life. First, people love the directness of the confrontation associated with any sports. In India people got interested in cricket because of nation v nation concept. It provided us an observable platform to get even with the English who ruled us for over two centuries; it also provided us a stage to upstage an unfriendly neighbour.

Second, these sporting spectacles provide a platform where the teams have opportunity to prove that they are indeed the best; unlike other professions like medicine, engineering, banking, etc where the privilege to be branded as the best in business is strictly a matter of opinion. In sports, the winning team prove themselves as best by getting better of their opposition. People love the fairness part. Victory has to earned and not bestowed unlike coalition politics in India, where compromise formula and not the merit determines who is going to be the Prime Minister and the President of the country.

Third, in a sport the only thing of prominence is performance. The experience is counted only if it is able to make the difference. An 18 year-old Mohammed Amir is given the license to fully examine a consummate 37 year-old Master Sachin Tendulkar with his bowling skill sets. Further, he is fully entitled to celebrate if he gets better of Tendulkar. There is no place for decorum, hierarchy, politics or respect on the field. Certainly one cannot live on past laurels. We have all witnessed so many greats of the game being elbowed out once they are past their prime. How dearly many of us would have wished the same culture in our work life?

Fourthly, as famous American sportswriter Heywood Broun put it aptly, Sports do not build character; they reveal it. For example to score 300 in a Test match is the work of a lifetime expressed in a single innings. It tells of childhood dreams and hours of practice in backyards and speaks of obsession and dedication. Contrast this with the statement of former chairman of the largest bank in India who when asked on his day of retirement about his biggest challenge in his tenure candidly admitted "In many impromptu discussions I had with media I was asked to air my views on many topics I was not aware of. My main challenge was not to let others know about my unfamiliarity on those issues."

Success in corporate, bureaucracy and politics to a large extent depends on zealously safeguarding your darker side. Sportsmen, on the other hand, are not allowed such luxuries. Hence, they are revered for their dedication, hard work and single-minded pursuit of excellence, without which they would not have reached the pinnacle of success. Sadly the same cannot be said about other professions.

Lastly, sports offer us an endless drama with possibilities that are rarely witnessed in real life. Whether it was Yuvraj Singh striking six sixes in an over off Stuart Broad* in 2007 T20 World Cup or Usain Bolt clocking a staggering 9.58 seconds in Berlin in 2009 or Manchester City scoring two goals in injury time to lift the English Premier league this season; the sheer audacity and self belief made watching the phenomenal achievements like these even more compelling.

In short, sports celebrate success in a riveting manner that is unmatched by success in other facets of life. It further helps that ingredients for this success tie well with what our books taught us about ethics when we were in school. As former American jurist Earl Warn put in succinctly -"I always turn to the sports pages first, which record people's accomplishments. The front page has nothing but man's failures."

*10:10 GMT, July 6: This article had incorrectly mentioned Chris Broad. This has been corrected